I have been thinking lately about the meaning of discipleship in our increasingly apocalyptic world. Climate change, the global pandemic and the growing threat to democracy each in its own way undermines our sense of what the world should be like. But the novel twist for the followers of Christ is that some of those who claim to be his disciples are climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and fully paid up members of QAnon. What hope can there be for proclaiming the gospel in a polarized Church in a polarized world, when the evangelizers cannot agree among themselves. Whatever happened to “see how those Christians love one another!”?
Getting close to Christmas as we are, we might look for help to Christmas 1914 in the trenches of the First World War. There is good evidence that at least at some points along the front line on Christmas Eve, the infantry called a truce and for an hour or two, met in no-man’s-land to exchange small gifts, to smoke cigarettes together and, in at least one spot, to play a game of soccer. Only to return promptly to killing one another. Fifty years later, the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka saw the horrors of the trenches as the site of a potentially new world, illustrated by what he named “the solidarity of the shaken.” The “shaken” was his word for those whose assumptions about the world had been left behind in Flanders mud, and the solidarity that arose from the sense that the men on both sides shared the existential challenge of the trenches—after all, they represented different armies. In fact, they may not have agreed on anything except the commonality of shakenness. Patočka used this scenario to help him promote the Charter 77 movement in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, a loose association of people of many different political perspectives united only in their shakenness and ready to do battle for democracy.
How does this help us with the problem of evangelization today? Illustrating the logic of “we are all in this together,” it strongly suggests an emphasis on presence, in this case of the shaken to the shaken. The gospel has no words to solve climate change or mandate vaccination or preserve democracy; instead, it offers an example of the attitude we should bring to all life’s existential crises, one of care and concern rather than problem solving. Moreover, this is surely what we should expect of disciples of the one who called out in despair from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus Christ on the cross is truly the Shaken One, and his first disciples shared that shakenness until the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, whose power moved them to true solidarity. They did something, they proclaimed the risen Jesus, the one who overcame shakenness and showed the way for his followers to do the same.
Since we cannot proclaim justice effectively unless we are just ourselves, perhaps the first place to try out the insights around shakenness might be in internal evangelization, even as local as the badly polarized American Catholic Church. Like all other citizens of the globe, American Catholics are shaken by the impact of climate change and the pandemic, whether absorbing the problems or denying them. But we are also deeply divided about how to respond to them, or whether to respond at all. In such a hopelessly divided state, there is no way to be effective prophets to a world that so sorely needs it. However, if we could agree that our church, like our world, is shaken to its foundations, then this might be a moment to build on, just as the death of Jesus is the beginning of new life. And we might find the key to this in kenosis, in God’s self-emptying in Jesus Christ, which begins with the child in the manger in Bethlehem. Whether we are Christians who are moved to focus on the humanity of Jesus, or on the divinity of the one whose self-empting he embodies, we are united in following the God-man Jesus Christ, who shared fully in shakenness but who transcended it in the Resurrection. When we relativize rhetoric and prioritize care and concern, we move closer to our sisters and brothers in Christ with whom we may disagree about so many things, and closer too to the world that so needs to share universal shakenness —and be stirred to healing action.
Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.
This is the last Go, Rebuild My House column for 2021. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and we will return in 2022.